The Rev. Charles M. Young calms down, grows up, and sings the joys of middle-age
By Steven Ward (February 2001)
Back in the mid and late ’70s, Charles M. Young–known then as The Rev. Charles M. Young–roamed the halls of Rolling Stone magazine like a starving lion let outside of his empty cage. A Midwesterner who landed his dream job at rock’s (arguably) most important publication, Young’s gonzo take on music and musicians was less Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer and more Joseph Heller–dark, sardonic and ironic. After starting off covering New York City’s Bowery punk bands at CBGBs in 1975, Young wound up writing lively features on pop culture icons like John Belushi near the end of rock’s most decadent decade. When he left Rolling Stone for Musician in the ’80s, his writing remained witty and intelligent but showed a growth and maturity lacking at Jann Wenner’s publishing empire.
Back in 1992, Young was sweet-talked back into writing for Wenner. He’s interviewed MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, U.S. historian Howard Zinn, and Ralph Nader for Rolling Stone. Young’s last major music feature — on the Butthole Surfers–was published in Rolling Stone in 1996. For Wenner’s Men’s Journal, Young has more recently written features about an extreme snowboarding tournament in Alaska, the psychology of losing, Zen meditation and the joy of middle-aged guitar playing.
Young is still writing about subjects that move him. Even though music and the people who make it don’t hold the same allure for Young, life’s other foibles provide him with enough material to fill thousands of magazine pages.
During this recent e-mail interview with Young, he talks about what punk music is today or even if it exists anymore, editors, the current state of rock criticism, and why he’s now happy writing about a different kind of celebrity–real people facing real-life problems.
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Steven: I still see your by-line in Playboy (where it’s been for years), and it occasionally crops up in Jann Wenner’s Men’s Journal. Besides those outlets, what have you been up to since Musician folded?
Charles: Two album reviews in Playboy every month. One or two reviews irregularly in an Atlantic Monthly advertising section called “What’s Coming Up” in the Arts. That’s it for music writing. I’m more of a generalist now. Am currently writing a strange essay about sloth for Men’s Journal. I prefer subject matter where I can pursue the political/philosophical/psychological overtones. Music and music journalism doesn’t give me much of a charge anymore.
Steven: Do you miss writing long features about bands in the splashy way you were able to do that in Rolling Stone and Musician?
Charles: Yes and no. I think those features had a certain vitality to them because I always felt I had something to learn from the musicians I was talking to, that they understood something about life that I didn’t. Now that I’m undeniably middle-aged (50), I’m looking elsewhere for wisdom. As a writer, I was grateful for the let-it-all-hang-out ethos of rock & roll. You couldn’t ask for more colorful characters. I had massive fun, and I learned a lot about how to quote people, what was fair and not fair.